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Kant's Categorical Imperative Confronts Modern Business

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Immanuel Kant's moral vision is well known throughout history and even today. It contains two general components that make up what is commonly called the "Categorical Imperative." These two components are: A) Act such as your actions can thus constitute a universal law (of action); and B) that, as a constituent element of (a), that one's actions treat other human beings as ends in themselves (as opposed to means). This paper will analyze these two components, and explore how they correspond to modern capitalism and the business climate of America today.

A) Act such as your actions can thus constitute a universal law (of action.)

Moral theory derives from the will. It deals with action and presumes a certain amount of control over those actions. Kant, believed humanity to be different from the rest of nature; that which is bounded by space and time and hence, determined�€"in that humanity is free and hence, responsible. However, we know the human being is different because of the nature of the human will. It can will itself, and hence, the will is not part of nature, and not part of the space/time nexus so important to Kant's theories. If an object can will itself through itself, then it is an immaterial and "spiritual" object that is immediately sensed (rather than filtered by the categories) and immaterial objects are not determined by natural laws the way material objects are.

The notion of a truly moral act derives from not willing a specific thing, or even being worried about consequences, but derives from the notion of a "spiritual" will of itself. The human individual can will the universal, defined by Kant as the will willing itself through itself. The will is hence a spiritual, autonomous object, and this constitutes its dignity. It constitutes the very nature of morality (Kant, 1993).

But what does this have to do with being "good?" The central issue is that the sheer form of the will is universal. The human will is hence a "communitarian" object that affects many people around it. But more importantly, if the will is an immaterial object and hence free, it is in precisely its freedom�€"the fact that it is different from objects in (space/time) nature, that lies at the root of willing and hence, morality. Thus, one can analyze the will as universal, free and immaterial. All three of those terms are interrelated. If the will is immaterial then it is undetermined, if it is undetermined then it is universal, since a lack of determination implies lack of object. Thus, from all this, a good action is that which proceeds from the universal will fully autonomous.

If the will was motivated by a specific interest, such as profits, it is no longer an autonomous will, but it is motivated by something outside it, the passion of greed. The invasion of the will by a passion means that the will is no longer free; it has become part of the rest of created nature. It is not free because it is controlled by an outside source. The existence of a passion that motivates the will is introducing materiality into willing and hence vitiating its freedom.

It is not difficult to see how this understanding of Kantian de-ontology would view capitalism. But there are two specific ways of applying Kant to the life of modern economic relations:

1) Kantian morality unconditionally condemns modern capitalism and all forms of acquisitiveness because it is not a universal law. Not everyone can make a profit from everyone else, for all profits would then cancel each other out. Profits, by definition, are earned by a few at the expense of many. Only the action of consumers in a free market can justify this, for the profiteers can always claim that the consumer freely gave their money to the capitalist, and hence, the transaction is justified on those grounds. Nevertheless, profits cannot be made a universal law. It might be possible to save Kant for capitalism by, ironically, bringing in utilitarianism. The market compromises between the needs of the sellers and the needs of the buyers called equilibrium that represents a price in turn acting as a symbol for this compromise. The buyer wants a cheap price, and the seller wants a profit. The market can act as a mechanism�€"via prices�€"where both buyer and seller can gain�€"the seller makes a profit, and the buyer gets what he wants at a good price. Hence, the market forces the passion of greed to work for the common good. The market regulates greed (or less pointedly, acquisitiveness) so that it begins as a desire that Kant would clearly condemn, but the mechanism of the market itself forces those desires to become universal. Since the capitalist must conform to the wishes of the consumer by market competition; what begins as passion ends up as universal reason.

B) Act so that one's actions treat other human beings as ends in themselves (as opposed to means).

A is only the first part of the categorical imperative. B is the second part. The first thing to do is link A and B together. We have established that the human will is immaterial and hence free. It is immaterial because it can will itself through itself. That is, it can will itself without any external actors forcing it to work. In fact, this is its very dignity, and it loses dignity when it is forced by the passions of gain or anger. But there is no reason to believe that a sane person cannot will the universal, and hence, all wills are potentially the same in all people. Individual persons embody universality. All can rise about cause and effect (nature) to the universal nature of willing that wills itself, the very form of the will: universal, free and autonomous.

Therefore, if A is true, then B derives directly from it: if people are all embodied universals, and a universal is the end of morality (or the very criterion of it), then human beings, as universals, can never be used as anything less without a major assault on their dignity. In other words, since human beings can will the universal, they can never be used as anything less. Therefore, to treat a human being as an end is to a) assert one's superiority over

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